Darrin Stokes, stands at the side of his car in San Diego, June 27, 2023. He has been living out of his car since 2016. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Why this matters

For many, a single impound could put a vehicle out of reach for good, jeopardizing access to employment, education, medical care and sometimes even housing.

Last November, an audit raised alarms about the San Diego Police Department’s vehicle towing program disproportionately hurting low-income and unhoused people.

Officers routinely order vehicles to be hauled away for what researchers have called “poverty tows” — which include expired registration, 72-hour parking violations and unpaid tickets — even when there is no risk to public safety, the city audit said.

Owners may lose their vehicles, jobs, access to education or medical care and, sometimes, their homes. And the city is set to lose at least $1.5 million this year on these tows because the owners often can’t afford to pay impound fees. The audit recommended city officials consider other options.

But more than six months later, not much has changed.

An inewsource analysis of city data found San Diego police continue to order these poverty tows at roughly the same rate, averaging about 650 per month. Records show:

  • From January 2017 through November 2022, before the audit, San Diego police ordered more than 115,000 tows. About 37% were due to expired registration, 72-hour violations and unpaid tickets.
  • From December through May, the months immediately following the audit, roughly 41% of the 9,700 impounds resulted from the same violations.
  • Two of the three most common reasons for towing in San Diego are expired registrations and 72-hour parking violations.

The threat of losing a vehicle is real — and could be devastating — for people like Darrin Stokes, who has been living in his car downtown for the past several years. He said he served time in prison for drug sales and his mother died the day after he was released. Without any other family connections, he fell into homelessness soon after. 

Stokes, 56, said he’s only been able to land part-time, odd jobs to get by. But he made a promise to himself to never do anything that would land him in trouble again. 

That’s part of the reason he’s careful to keep his registration up to date and refuses to stay in one place too long.

Darrin Stokes, sits at the side of his car in San Diego, June 27, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

“If this car got towed, I’d be in a tent. And I don’t even own one,” he said, adding that he feels criminalized simply because he is unhoused.

A San Diego police spokesperson told inewsource the city’s towing program is largely complaint-driven, coming from high-density housing areas where parking is a premium.

The police department is required to provide annual updates to the City Council about its towing program, including trends and outcomes. But that hasn’t happened since 2013, the audit said.

Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, whose district includes downtown, requested the audit last year after hearing about the impact of the towing program on low-income residents.

In a statement, Whitburn told inewsource the city has to enforce regulations, and officials should continue ticketing for expired registration, 72-hour parking violations and overdue fines. But they should stop towing and impounding vehicles for these reasons, and he intends to bring up this proposal at the end of the month.

“Not only do these tows and impounds harm residents who are struggling financially, they cost the city more than a million-and-a-half dollars a year,” Whitburn said. “Towing and impounding vehicles for minor violations that disproportionately impact low-income residents is a lose-lose proposition.”

San Diego could curb ‘poverty tows’ with these options

The city’s audit of San Diego’s towing trends recommended police and city officials consider alternatives to towing, when doing so would disproportionately impact low-income vehicle owners.

  • ​​“Text Before Tow” – residents enroll in a program to receive a text message if their vehicle is subject to a tow
  • Waive fees for extenuating circumstances
  • Halt or reduce enforcement for certain tow reasons
  • Low-income payment plan – allows low-income residents to pay down citations and fees to reduce the burden
  • Subsidy for first-time tows, low-income residents and people experiencing homelessness 
  • “Boot” vehicle before tow – vehicle owners have 72 hours from the time a boot is placed to pay citations, with reduced boot removal fees for low-income and unhoused people
  • Charge different rates for different tow reasons – higher administrative fees to criminal offenses
  • Community service in lieu of fees

‘Obstacle course of bureaucracy’

To be sure, towing is an important service that ensures public safety, traffic flow and equitable parking. But some reasons for towing are not rooted in public safety and, instead, disproportionately impact those who are low-income or experiencing homelessness.

Poverty tows are often linked to higher fees and are more likely to result in a lien sale, according to a 2019 study called “Towed into Debt” that was frequently cited in the city’s audit. The towing program works like this:

The police department contracts with a dispatcher, eight towing companies and four impound lots to clear vehicles from public roadways as needed. The cost of the program is divided between the towed vehicle’s registered owner and the contracted impound providers.

Once a police officer orders a tow, the vehicle is taken to an impound lot and starts accruing a daily $41 storage fee, on top of the fees due to the city and contractors. More than half of impounded vehicles are retrieved within 24 hours — in fact, one in four vehicles are retrieved within four hours of the impound, according to the audit.

It costs the owner $282 to retrieve their vehicle on the first day. But if it sits in the impound lot for a week, the cost goes above $500. That can push the car out of reach for many people.

According to a recent federal report, one in three Americans don’t have the money to cover a $400 unanticipated expense, while one in five said the biggest expense they could cover using only savings is under $100.

The city can sell the vehicle to recover costs if it isn’t retrieved within 15 or 30 days, depending on the value. This is called a lien sale. Poverty tows are three-to-five times more likely to result in a lien sale, because people often can’t afford to retrieve their vehicle.

By then, the cost to retrieve the vehicle has jumped above $1,500, and the average sale price only brings in $500. The proceeds from lien sales rarely recover even half of the costs for towing and storage. The city loses $63 every time the car is sold rather than retrieved, and it happens nearly 500 times every month on average, according to the audit.

A key finding from the audit told San Diego officials to strengthen public oversight and transparency of the towing program. It recommended the police department start providing regular updates as required by city policy, and work with staff on the frequency of updates and the information provided.

Police officials agreed with those recommendations; however, they pushed back on a recommendation that they should consider alternatives and propose policy changes to the towing program.

The audit found a substantially higher percentage of poverty tows in districts 4 and 8, which correspond with two of the three lowest median household incomes per council district.

Councilmember Vivian Moreno, who represents District 8, said she found it hard to believe that the city is subsidizing a program that is having a direct negative impact on people’s livelihoods.

“It’s very troubling and I want to make sure that the city is taking action to reduce the number as much as possible, because towing somebody’s car away can really have a negative impact on the livelihood of the individual,” Moreno said during an audit committee hearing last November.

“I believe part of the reason why they probably have expired tags is because they don’t have the money to pay for the tags,” Moreno added. “So, in fact, I would argue that we’re just making it more and more difficult.”

She said she wants the city to explore the possibility of requiring another violation in addition to expired registration before a vehicle can be towed.

Expired registration is by far the No. 1 reason for tows in San Diego. These tows create “an obstacle course of bureaucracy” for owners to retrieve their vehicle, according to the 2019 study.

Once an owner realizes their car has been towed, they first have to go to the DMV to renew the registration. Then, the owner often has to go to the police department to have a “hold” removed from their vehicle before they can retrieve it from the impound lot. And say they have to wait until their next paycheck to take all these steps — the costs can quickly get out of hand.

A note written in a parked car window in San Diego pleads with police to not tow the car, June 27, 2023. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

For those who rely on their car for employment, or even housing, a tow for expired registration can deeply impact their livelihood. One man used a marker to scribble a desperate plea on the window of his truck parked downtown:

“Don’t tow, I’m working at (the) airport. My mom’s ashes are in here. I’m working on paying off (an) insurance violation (and) then I can register my truck.”

The high cost of housing has driven some to live in their car. That’s the situation for a man named Lou — inewsource has agreed to not publish his full name because he’s afraid of being targeted. 

Lou, 76, has been living in his ‘94 Camry hatchback near San Diego City College for about a year. He said he’s retired and collects a pension, as well as social security, but it’s not enough to cover rent here in San Diego. 

“It’s not going to get any better,” he said. “Anybody who tells you that is crazy.”

Officials encourage people who live in their car to take advantage of the city’s four sanctioned parking lots — two overnight and two that run 24 hours. Lou said he prefers keeping to himself because he feels safer and sleeps better when he’s out on his own.

In a few months, Lou said he plans to move to Chicago. He wants to reconnect with family and he has a lead on affordable senior housing, which calls for a monthly rent of $1,160.

“I’ve got the finances — I can afford $1,160 a month — are you kidding?” he said. “I’d have money in my pocket for the rest of the month.”

He said the same situation here would cost him $2,000 or more a month. In the meantime, Lou said he’s careful not to cause any problems and avoids staying in one place too long. He also had a smog check coming up so he could renew his registration.

“I keep everything up,” he said. “I don’t want to get stopped by the police.”

Zoë Meyers contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: July 6, 2023

This story has been updated to include comments from the San Diego Police Department.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource focusing on social impact and government accountability. Few things excite him more than building spreadsheets and knocking on the door of people who refuse to return his calls. When he’s not ruffling the feathers of some public official, Cody...